Covid-19: Matt Hancock and Gavin Williamson 'argued over school return policy' - what do latest leaks reveal?

The latest story in the leaked WhatsApp messages series reveals how Matt Hancock argued with Gavin Williamson over schools staying open during Covid

Matt Hancock (left) and Gavin Williamson pictured in 2018 (Image: Getty)
Matt Hancock (left) and Gavin Williamson pictured in 2018 (Image: Getty)
Matt Hancock (left) and Gavin Williamson pictured in 2018 (Image: Getty)

Matt Hancock was involved in an angry clash with then-education secretary Sir Gavin Williamson over moves to keep schools open during the Covid-19pandemic, according to the latest batch of leaked WhatsApp messages published by The Telegraph.

It comes after Wednesday's leaks alleged that the former health secretary rejected advice from chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty to give Covid tests to all residents going into England’s care homes .

The tranche of more than 100,000 WhatsAapp messages was passed to the paper by the journalist Isabel Oakeshott, who was given the material by Hancock when they were working together on a book about his time in government during the pandemic.

Hancock strongly denies the allegations made in the Telegraph series and is reportedly considering legal action. NationalWorld has not seen or independently verified the WhatsApp messages, which have not been fully released.

What do the latest leaks allege?

In the messages revealed today (2 March) by The Telegraph, Hancock said they needed to fight a “rear-guard action” to prevent a “policy car crash” when children returned to the classrooms and started spreading the disease.

The latest messages feature an exchange between Hancock and Emma Dean, a special adviser, during a Zoom meeting in which Williamson convinced the prime minister the January 2021 reopening should go ahead despite concerns about the second Covid wave then gripping the country.

Ms Dean said the education secretary was “freaking out”, adding: “You can tell he isn’t being wholly rationale. Just by his body language.”

Hancock replied: “I’m having to turn the volume down.”

At the end of the meeting, Hancock said: “I want to find a way, Gavin having won the day, of actually preventing a policy car crash when the kids spread the disease in January. And for that we must now fight a rear-guard action.”

The Telegraph said the messages show he then contacted Dan Rosenfield, Boris Johnson’s chief of staff, to begin his attempt to have schools closed before children returned, providing him with his private email address.

In the event, on 4 January, after many younger children had returned to classes for a single day, Johnson announced schools would close and exams would be cancelled amid a national lockdown. They did not reopen until March 8.

In an article for The Telegraph, Williamson said that he had considered quitting over the decision as he was so unhappy. “Looking back now, I wonder whether I should have resigned at that point. I certainly thought long and deeply over whether I should have gone then. I just felt so personally upset about it,” he wrote.

What was said about teaching unions?

The messages also show how Hancock and Williamson had earlier expressed their exasperation with the teaching unions. Hancock messaged Williamson to congratulate him on a decision to delay A-level exams for a few weeks.

“Cracking announcement today. What a bunch of absolute arses the teaching unions are,” he wrote.

Williamson responded: “I know they really really do just hate work.”

Following their publication by The Telegraph, the former education secretary tweeted that his comments had been “about some unions and not teachers”.

He added: “I have the utmost respect for teachers who work tirelessly to support students.”

A spokesman for Hancock said: “Tonight’s revelations are exactly like last night’s. These are partial accounts, obviously spun with an agenda. They show Matt was focused throughout on saving lives. The right place for a full assessment is the (official Covid) inquiry.”

What else has been alleged?

Ministers briefly considered ordering all domestic cats in Britain to be killed amid fears they could be spreading Covid, a former health minster has said. Lord Bethell, who was Matt Hancock's deputy in the Department of Health and Social from 2020 to 2021, said the concern about pets underlined how little was known about the disease at the outbreak of the pandemic in 2020.

“What we shouldn’t forget is how little we understood about this disease,” he told Channel 4 News. “There was a moment we were very unclear about whether domestic pets could transmit the disease.

“In fact, there was an idea at one moment that we might have to ask the public to exterminate all the cats in Britain. Can you imagine what would have happened if we had wanted to do that? And yet, for a moment there was a bit of evidence around that so that had to be investigated and closed down.”

What has Isabel Oakeshott said?

Ms Oakeshott confirmed that she had broken an non-disclosure agreement (NDA) with Hancock – although she argued that her action was overwhelmingly in the “public interest”. However, she acknowledged that he was not happy at what she had done.

“I received a somewhat menacing message from him at 1.20 in the morning,” she told TalkTV’s Piers Morgan Uncensored. “I think he is extremely troubled about how to respond to this, but this is not about him.”

Hancock strongly denies this claim.